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Liberty’s Discontents: The Contested History of Freedom

ne of the more contentious issues to emerge during America’s Covid-19 crisis concerns the wearing of face masks. Heralded by public health experts as a vital way to halt the spread of the disease, masks have also been attacked by conservatives as unwarranted restrictions on personal freedom. Donald Trump, who was briefly hospitalized with Covid in the final months of his presidency, defiantly refused to wear a mask in public, and he wasn’t alone: Thousands of similarly barefaced supporters attended his rallies, public health consequences be damned. Many Americans have challenged the call to wear masks, and the public health research behind it, as an attack on their rights as citizens of a free country. Last June, protesters stormed a hearing in Palm Beach, Fla., at which public officials were considering whether to require the wearing of masks in public buildings. During the fiery session, one woman claimed, “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these communist dictatorship orders or laws you want to mandate.” As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch noted after the meeting:

It was another great day for liberty—and yet a horrible one for tens of thousands of Americans who now may die needlessly because so many cling to a warped idea of freedom that apparently means not caring whether others in your community get sick. The reality is that those devil-worshipping elected officials and their mad scientists are trying to mandate masks in public for the same reasons they don’t let 12-year-olds drive and they close bars at 2 a.m.: They actually want to keep their constituents alive.

Give me liberty or give me death, indeed.

Ah, freedom! Few ideals in human history have been so cherished—or so controversial. The United States, in particular, has built its identity around the idea of freedom, from the Bill of Rights, enshrining various freedoms in the law of the land, to the giant statue of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. And yet—interestingly, for such a foundational ideal—freedom has throughout history represented both the means to an end and the end itself. We wish to be free to pursue our most cherished goals in life, to make money as we will, to share our lives with whom we will, to live where we choose. Freedom empowers our individual desires, but at the same time it structures how we live with other individuals in large, complex societies. As the saying goes, my freedom to swing my fist ends just where someone else’s nose begins; in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “Total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.” The tension between individual and collective notions of freedom highlights but by no means exhausts the many different approaches to the idea, helping to explain how it has motivated so many struggles throughout human history.

In her ambitious and impressive new book, Freedom: An Unruly History, the political historian Annelien de Dijn approaches this massive subject from the standpoint of two conflicting interpretations of freedom and their interactions over 2,500 years of Western history. She starts her study by noting that most people think of freedom as a matter of individual liberties and, in particular, of protection from the intrusions of big government and the state. This is the vision of liberty outlined in the opening paragraph of this essay, one that drives conservative ideologues throughout the West. De Dijn argues, however, that this is not the only conception of freedom and that it is a relatively recent one. For much of human history, people thought of freedom not as protecting individual rights but as ensuring self-rule and the just treatment of all. In short, they equated freedom with democracy. “For centuries Western thinkers and political actors identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with exercising control over the way one is governed,” she writes. Liberty in its classic formulation was thus not individual but collective. Freedom did not entail escaping from government rule but rather making it democratic.

Read entire article at The Nation